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Smoke on the Water

Mark Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg
Summit Entertainment
 107 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell
Deepwater Horizon

In telling the story of the spectacular destruction of the Deepwater Horizon, the oil drilling platform whose demise resulted in the most extensive offshore oil spill in American history, director Peter Berg was torn between the desire to explain the events that occurred and thus cast the blame on those he felt responsible, and an equally compelling desire to make an old-fashioned disaster movie, taking the familiar 1970’s formula and enhancing it with state-of-the-art computer graphics. He succeeded spectacularly in the latter; the explosion and fires in Deepwater Horizon are reminiscent in some ways of the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. But, as spectacular as the effects are, and, despite some good work from a talented cast, the movie of Deepwater Horizon never rises above the level of serviceable entertainment.


As Berg and his screenwriters tell the story (based on an expose by two acclaimed journalists), the disaster was largely the result of corporate greed by BP, the company that hired the rig’s owner, Transocean, to drill the well that ultimately blew out. The Deepwater Horizon was designed to drill exploratory holes in oil beds. These holes were capped underwater with cement, and, if viable, were later replaced with permanent wells. At the time of the explosion, the crew of the Horizon were trying to finish the capping of their latest well, a project that was considerably behind schedule. Somehow, a methane gas bubble ignited, causing an explosion that destroyed the cap and quickly engulfed the entire rig in flames.


The movie is divided into two roughly equal halves. As in traditional disaster movies, the first half of Deepwater Horizon follows a couple of the crew members during the hourse before the explosion, beginning back onshore before they fly out to the rig. Once on the Horizon, Transocean’s manager in command of the rig, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) butts heads with BP executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) over whether to conduct additional safety checks. Eventually, with considerable reservations, Harrell and his chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) proceed with the work that eventually results in the explosion.


In some regards, the screenplay of Deepwater Horizon is a “no-brainer,” because some of the things that occurred on the rig were so cinematically bizarre, they defy belief. except for the fact that they really happened. For example, on the day of the explosion, BP officials gave Mr. Jimmy, as Harrell was known, a safety award for having a perfect lost time record for several years up until that time. Needless to say, that record didn’t last long, nor would a screenwriter who tried to invent such a plot device for ironic purposes. Similarly, when the disaster first struck (and there were several minutes following the initial rumbles and ruptures before the big explosion), Williams was on a video telephone call with his wife (Kate Hudson), a call that had to be cut short when he returned to the work area to see what was wrong.


Berg and his screenwriters do a good job of setting out the facts and explaining the conflict between Mr. Jimmy and those like Vidrine who wanted the work to proceed. Naturally, the movie comes squarely down on the side of Harrell, as evidenced by the casting of the actors playing the key roles. Russell is the picture of sincerity here, while Malkovich, in one of his typical, over-the-top villainous performances, is as smarmy as it gets, down to a bizarre Cajun accent that he trots out, a variation on the evil Southerner.


Obviously, there’s a lot more to the explosion and resulting disaster than can be portrayed in a fast-moving action film that clocks in at under two hours. Berg and his screenwriters go out of their way to have the characters describe what’s going on in detail that would be unnecessary in real life (including the device of having Williams explain his work to his schoolgirl daughter who is working on an essay about what her father does). The insertion of this material is a bit clunky in execution, but it does put the later events in perspective.


Once the real action starts, however, the action gets frighteningly realistic. Unfortunately, frightening realism, as Steven Spielberg demonstrated in Saving Private Ryan, can also mean tremendously confusing. And, if the crew members who lived on that rig for months wound up getting confused about where they were and how to get out, a viewing audience will be much more confused. Director Berg avoids the 70’s era disaster conventions of having characters mull over their possible impending doom in favor of a rapid pace and constant motion.


The effects themselves in Deepwater Horizon are spectacular, even more so because they are confined. Audiences of today are overwhelmed by superhero showdowns that decimate entire planets. Here, much of the action takes place in crowded corridors and catwalks, with smoke and flames just around every corner. It’s far more impressive because of the relatively small scale and the sheer realism. The film’s climax occurs on the helicopter landing platform, some 10 stories above the ocean, where the flames have forced Mike Williams and another crew member (Gina Rodriguez), and they are forced to jump in order to survive. What must have been a harrowing few moments for the real life pair seems equally harrowing here.


Deepwater Horizon demonstrates, in my mind, how CGI effects should be used in today’s films, not to overwhelm viewers with billions of exploding pixels, but to try to put them in the middle of something spectacular but realistic. The disaster occurred, and the filmmakers have recreated it in a way that effects crews of a generation ago never could. But, still, something is missing in the movie, the human element. By compressing the survival saga of over 100 people down to four, and depicting those four in a somewhat confusing (albeit understandable) manner, the movie never rises above the level of spectacularly serviceable. However, for most viewers in an era of overkill, the spectacular elements here will definitely suffice.

In this scene, Mark Wahlberg gives John Malkovich some food for thought about safety.

Read other reviews of Deepwater Horizon:


Deepwater Horizon (2016) on IMDb